If you're an Oscar nominee and give good camera, you too could score a loaner gown from a famous design house for the big night.

For the house, it equals what is pretty much a free full-page color ad in a dozen fashion magazines complete with a celebrity endorsement -- and big sales to follow. When design houses did the math in the '80s and realized that a runway shot of model Naomi Campbell was worth more than running a magazine ad, "the supermodel" was born.

Fast-forward two decades and star attachment has raised the stakes. Considering the increase of Hollywood faces lining runway shows and the entertainment industry's current fashion magazine cover monopoly, an Oscar in a pocket can cause designer sales to skyrocket.

Kim Basinger made a faux pas one year when she donned an asymmetrical creation she "designed herself" during her Prince phase and was slammed by the press. After this incident, putting a style-savvy foot forward on Oscar night became key in celeb career maneuvering and few dare to go it alone. Even stars with Madonna-caliber personal style call in the help of top stylists and publicists to create their best look for the big night. Now more than ever, you are what you wear to the Oscar's.


Hilary Swank and Angelina Jolie walk the walk, above.

Top left, J Lo and Bjork offer a study in contrasts.


One dress can equal big sales
Oscar-night veteran designer Richard Tyler started out with a Hollywood base before setting up shop in New York and still dresses Tinseltown. After he did Toni Braxton's couture loin cloth number for the Grammy's, Neiman Marcus reported orders for six the next morning. Retail stores are more concerned with celebrity attachment than ever and have passed the frenzy down to the customer as well. These days, press doesn't "just happen" anymore and an Oscar photo can generate the ultimate pre-sale buzz.

Alternative evening wear designer Robert Danes, who dressed Anna Paquin and Halle Barry for the SAG awards last year, is angling for Oscar coverage this season. Robert enjoys working with celebrities. "They're still people who are fun to dress, but these award events are stressful times for performers. It's more than 'just going to a party.' It's big business and the best I can do is make sure they feel especially comfortable and confident in my clothes. If they feel good after a fitting, so do I."

Danes admits that the rag business is tied up with celebrity more than ever. Along with much of Manhattan's garment district, his partner Rachel Danes headed west last week to set up a "pre-Oscar" sample shop at Los Angeles' swank hotel, Chateau Marmont.

The dance begins
Tactfully or not, most designers solicit stars, through their publicists and personal stylists. Egos abound and not everyone admits the pursuit. Calvin Klein is rumored to send racks of clothes to support Oscar-night stylists, while other may not be as free with their designs. A spokesperson for Ralph Lauren's celebrity placement department stated that "Ralph likes to remain understated in terms of the Oscars and doesn't send racks of clothing like Calvin does."

In any event, somehow Lauren's pre-season pale pink ballgown made its way onto Gwyneth Paltrow's body at last year's Awards.

Few design houses will divulge who's wearing what before Oscar night, because the game isn't over until the cameras roll. Some fashion houses have star power under contract (Michael Michelle of ER fame wears Carolina Herrera), and few will admit that relationship as well. With appearances at such high stakes, most stars opt to keep their wardrobe options wide open until the final hour.

Individuality at the Oscars
Exempt from any potential copycat danger is British legend and newcomer to the American retail scene, Vivienne Westwood. Known best for her costume-like gowns with sculpted bustles (and for nearly single-handedly starting London's punk movement), Mark Palmen, a spokesperson for Westwood is proud of their foray into the Hollywood scene. "It's fun to be involved with an actor at the point in their career when they need something to wear to the Oscars."

He also says that they are more likely to dress an actress who is interested in original fashion and not in being a walking advertisement for the brand.

"We just don't do little black beaded slip dresses," chuckles Palmen.

Slip dresses (read Calvin, Valentino and Armani) are the mainstay of actresses concerned with presenting a safe marketable package in terms of their careers. Westwood, who dressed Kate Winslet last year, is openly pursuing the Oscar crowd in the hopes that individuality is a forthcoming Hollywood trend. Palmen hand-delivered a $65,000 Swarovski crystal encrusted corset (made with two seams allowing no alterations) to the Westwood styling closet base in Los Angeles last week to "await the perfect fit on the right person."

In November, Westwood staged the Gold Label show in Los Angeles featuring specialty evening wear, to feed their growing celebrity following. Like any other fashion trend, "individuality" in a sea of commercial fashion might not last, but it's likely to take a better photo on Oscar night.

And if you can't afford a corset that is at least twice your salary, you can at least hold your breath - - until after the Oscar fashion parade. A huge publicity splash in the life of an Oscar gown can ignite cheap knock-offs. Gwyneth's pale pink ballgown was featured on a recent Oprah segment as "available for prom night at Lerners" (a discount clothing franchise) and it was hard to tell the two apart.

Mila Radulovic is the editor-in-chief of Fashion Icon, a ChickClick sister site.

Be My Mannequin

How designers and celebs hook up for Oscar's big night.

by Mila Radulovic